Be Not Afraid

In Leviticus, God gives Israel a number of covenant blessings and curses which describe the benefits and consequences of keeping (or failing to keep) the Sinai covenant. One of the “covenant curses” is curiously descriptive of the jittery culture of fear in which now live:

But if you do not heed me and do not keep all these commandments… I will make [them] so fainthearted that, if leaves rustle behind them, they will flee headlong, as if from the sword, though no one pursues them; stumbling over one another as if to escape a weapon, while no one is after them–so helpless will you be to take a stand against your foes! (Leviticus 26:14; 36)

A culture of death is inevitably a culture of fear because a culture that loses the holy and freedom-giving fear of God inevitably becomes a culture dominated by the servile fear of man. It becomes afraid of its own shadow–and not without good reason, for the shadow of fallen man is very dark indeed at times. But precisely because it is dominated by fear, it is not ruled by truth, or light or even sanity. In the effort to console itself that it is not afraid, it turns to bread and circuses to keep up its spirits (Britney Spears Watch! 24/7!!!!). And as it grows in fear (because bread and circuses do not satisfy the soul) it begins to exaggerate its fear fantasies into “realism”, conflate violence with justice and strength with cruelty and cunning. And so it behaves much as Paul describes: “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Ephesians 4:14).

Fear is the source of all the “What if?” games being played by allegedly serious politicians, pundits and media types who imagine the main question of the day is: “In which remote hypothetical situation would it be okay to torture somebody?”

Let’s not kid ourselves. That’s not “moral reasoning”. That’s fishing for excuses, like the guy with the hot secretary and the rocky marriage who is constantly asking “hypothetical” questions about “How far is too far?” and “What is a valid marriage anyway?” and “What if a nuclear holocaust left me permanently separated from my wife? Wouldn’t I be bound to try to repopulate the earth with my secretary if I could?”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that there is a certain unhealthy agenda at work here.

This analogy is not, of course, to suggest that our present national choice to succumb to the temptation to torture is the same sort of temptation as the temptation to sleep with the hot secretary. Rather it is to say that temptation is temptation. When you are afraid, you tend to base your thinking on your fears, just as when you are tempted sexually you tend to base your thinking on your desires. That’s what concupiscence means. It is the darkened intellect, disordered appetites, and weakened will that results from the Fall. As a result, we often don’t think clearly, act sensibly, or do the hard thing God demands. That’s the human condition. And it’s why revelation and grace are necessary.

Paul commands us, as members of Christ to “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). If we are to do that in this situation, we need to start the conversation on how to treat prisoners based, not on our worst fears, but on the Just War tradition that has formed Christian thinking for over a millennium. That teaching says both that we have the right to defend ourselves and that prisoners must be treat humanely. Beginning a deliberation of the approach to interrogation, not with fundamental facts from the Christian tradition concerning the dignity of the human person, the purpose (and limits) of the state, and the relationship between the two is to ignore revelation and allow our fears to dictate our thinking. To then allow those fears to tell us we are being “realistic” as we fantasize about ticking bombs but unrealistic as we contemplate the Tradition is to “feed the flesh” to use Pauline language. “The flesh” includes, for Paul, not simply sexual lusts, but things like servile fear as well.

That’s why the entire so called “torture debate” has produced such evil fruit: because it is asking the moral nonsense question “How close can you get to committing a grave and intrinsically immoral act without crossing the line?” That is like asking “How far can I go with the hot secretary before it’s adultery?” To even ask the question is already evidence of a gravely corrupted mind and a sure bet that the results of such moral calculus will be rubbish. The real–and almost always unasked–question is “How do we treat prisoners humanely as the Church commands and still get the intelligence we need?” How do we make sure to obey this very clear teaching of the Christian tradition that assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict and reminds us that the mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties?

The real realistic starting point for our thinking is this: if we aim to treat prisoners humanely we will never accidentally torture them. It is only when we aim to torture them while trying to pretend that is not what we are doing that we have to involve ourselves in all the endless tergiversation and bafflegab that has characterized the supposedly “realistic” chatter of the Rubber Hose Right for the past six years. And most ironic of all, if we aim to treat prisoners humanely, it turns out we are being, not pollyanna, but entirely practical about intelligence too:

“When I was in the officer’s basic course, one of the instructors, only half-jokingly, proclaimed, “Beatings and drugs are for fun, not for information.” His point was you can get anyone to say anything you want through torture. Good information came from psychology, interpersonal skills, and long hours with your prisoner. The best interrogators I’ve worked with tended to be very good at reading people and very good at using their understanding of the person and their culture to get them to talk – no waterboarding required…

We should be developing an ideological alternative (or alternatives) to jihad and are instead alienating our allies, enraging the populations from which the terrorists arise, and most importantly, alienating our COG [center of gravity] in the form of the U.S. electorate. A liberal democracy, such as the US, operating in an environment with pervasive media cannot afford to dally in tactics that may provide some short term gains at the expense of long term success.

It is not just the US that has made this error in judgment. The Brits and French did the same in their COIN [counterinsurgency] campaigns in 20th century and suffered for it. We should learn from their mistakes – and ours.” – Army Capt. Kyle Teamey, a current military intelligence officer.

This gets us to the heart of the conflict between Christian revelation in this matter and the lies (and therefore delusions) of realpolitik.

For what is at the core of all “realistic” consequentialist appeals to do grave evil for the greater good is, ultimately, a refusal to trust that God knows what he is talking about. It is the conviction that the Christian revelation is not an insight into the very nature of reality, but an idealistic daydream that hard thinkers and tough-minded men must sweep away in favor of “practical” solutions. In this analysis, the functional belief of the Machiavellian is “You shall embrace evil, and evil shall make you safe.”

The argument of the Christian revelation is that this is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie from the pit of Hell, as well as a snare and delusion. Because the claim of the Christian revelation is that Christ intends our happiness and knows better than we do what is actually the best way to realize it. This involves a conception of Christ’s commands as something other than impossible ideals or as cruel irrational restrictions we have to obey for no reason other than fear. In short, it involves the idea that the One who created us did so because he wills our happiness and that obedience to him is actually ordered toward life and freedom, not toward our destruction.

Christianity teaches us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Part of this counsel is indeed to trust God and keep your powder dry. But another, and much despised, part involves the seemingly pollyanna command of our Lord “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.” That is not because Jesus is a cockeyed optimist and a fool but because he knows that cultivation of fear is not the same thing as prudence.

Prudence is the clear-eyed ability to see what is so. The cultivation of fear, in contrast, places us not in the “real world” but in a fantasy world of Bruce Willis movies and endless 24 scenarios. In the real world is God and our duty to our family, community and work. This is not speculation on my part. This is the teaching of the gospel. For the world, readiness comes from being afraid, tense, jumping at the rustle of leaves, worried about what horrible thing might happen and laboring to fantasize about what crimes you might commit to stop it. For Paul, readiness comes from peace. That’s why he tells the Ephesians to let their feet be shod with “the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15). St. Paul does not command us to constantly rehearse the horrible ways in which we and those we love might suffer (and this was a man who experienced more actual suffering than we ever will). Instead–from jail–he wrote:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:6-9).

That–despite the lie “9/11 Changed Everything!”–has not changed.


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